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Murray Journal

Riverview Students Take Responsibility for Own Learning

Nov 06, 2015 09:38AM ● By Julie Slama

By Julie Slama

In his 26th year of teaching, John McConnell wanted 26 of his eighth-grade integrated science students at Riverview Junior High to take ownership for their education. 

“If the students are engaged in deciding how they’ll learn what they’ll learn, they take more responsibility for their education,” McConnell said. “They still follow the core curriculum from the state and they look at the learning outcomes, but how they are going to learn it and how they decide if they understand it is part of what they determine. This allows them to buy into their learning.”

Nicknamed the “ant hill” since they all work together, his third period class takes turns determining the lessons and experiments. McConnell picked this class because if they need additional time, they can continue during Plus Time, a class period where they can explore other subject areas after completing their assigned work.

Eighth grader Crista Peterson wasn’t sure of her teacher’s direction when he said they’d be in charge of their own learning.

“I thought he was kind of crazy because no other teacher has done anything like this before,” she said. “Working and communicating with others has worked very well, but really knowing what we need to know has been a bit of a challenge because we are still learning how to teach each other.”

Her classmate, Caleb Spjute, said that after realizing they had textbooks and other materials to help them, he got excited about the idea.

“I love the idea of teaching ourselves, but at first, it was frightening. I was nervous until the second week when I realized it would be amazing,” he said.

On each topic covered in the curriculum and in the textbook, McConnell assigns five students to review the chapter and brainstorm lab ideas. For example, when they needed to learn about describing properties, the student leaders decided to make caramels and record their findings in their journals.

“They learned that each group stirred caramels differently, and depending on how much energy it took, they ended up either hard or really gooey. From that, they learned about energy in matter,” he said.

After the first month of school, eighth grader Alexis Zabriskie said students teaching each other has been working well.

“I like the idea a lot and felt like we would have more freedom — which we do, but I also felt like it would be a little chaotic, but it’s not at all,” she said. “I think a big thing that has worked well is trust. We all trust each other and they know that they can trust us.”

When introducing the topic of physical and chemical changes in late September, his students wanted to do a writing project. Through brainstorming and discussion, it was decided they would write and illustrate children’s books.

“I was excited because I like writing short stories for my siblings. I was excited to share it because I know students at Viewmont, because I visit every day after school and I went to Viewmont,” Caleb said.

Some students worked independently and some worked in pairs, but when they completed the assignment, there were more than 12 books that they then arranged to read to Viewmont Elementary School second graders.

The book stories ranged from a girl and her elephant, a knight, a day in the city, a moose, cooking adventures, friendship among frogs and others. In each of the books, students needed to include six examples of physical changes, six examples of chemical changes and six differences of properties of matter. For example, in “Little Bo-Anna,” the student author wrote how Anna notices that when wood burns, it turns black and smoke rises from it, and when metal rusts, it turns a beautiful red.

Alexis wrote her story about her love of elephants.

“I think they enjoyed it a lot. I felt like they learned that science is everywhere and in lots of scenarios — not just during science time. Everything we do involves science,” she said.

Crista and classmate Abby Smith wrote a story about a moose.

“We were just trying to think of a simple, but entertaining, way to teach kids about chemical and physical changes. I think they enjoyed the story a lot. They were a little confused on the physical and chemical changes, but thought it was a lot of fun to have us there,” she said.

Viewmont second-grade teacher Geri Smith said that physical and chemical changes are part of their core as well, so she thought this was a good match for her students.

“It’s fun to learn from the older students, and once they get past the initial meeting, they felt comfortable and there was lots of learning going on,” she said. “I expected students to get excited about learning the same science facts, but I was surprised when they came back and had embraced the literacy angle, saying how they learned anyone can be an author and write a story.”

Second grader Izic Copier learned this lesson when he told his teacher, “I learned that you can make any story that you want.”

His classmate, Graceie Mros, also liked the idea of students becoming authors and illustrators.

“I learned that I’m going to create my own book when I’m older and make pretty art,” she said.

Second grader Savana Whitlock realized that everyone can read every story written, and classmate Kaitlyn Stout added, “even if you don’t like the story that you write, other people might like it.”

Smith and McConnell’s classes in the past have worked together studying rocks, since both eighth and second grade curriculums study them, and they have set a tentative date to do it again in April 2016, if the eighth graders decide to return.

“This worked so well. They can’t wait to go back; they’re giddy about it,” McConnell said.

Caleb agreed: “I want to teach the elementary school more when our class learns about rocks. I think we should teach them the types and layers and how they form when we learn that.”

Before they return to Viewmont, there will be additional instruction and labs that will be student-led, he said, adding that the next one will involve hot and cold water and graphing.

“I hope that after this year, they will go away knowing how to learn and be able to take charge of their own education,” McConnell said.

Alexis and her classmates already are grasping that.

“This class is awesome. We work together so well and get things done on time. We are like a well-oiled machine that, for the most part, runs really smoothly. I think it is simply amazing that [Mr. McConnell] can sit back and watch the class learn without him having to teach it,” she said.